Trapped in El Norte 

Hundreds of East Bay laborers bid wives and children adiós, risked their lives, and blew their savings to pursue the American Dream.

On a chilly Saturday morning, a man named Raúl sits with five or six others along a low wall on Oakland's East 12th Street, waiting for work that isn't going to materialize. Clad in muddy boots and well-worn hand-me-downs, they slump against a chain-link fence, squinting at the glare reflecting off the pavement. The wide thoroughfare, which divides residential neighborhoods from the staples of industry and commerce, is nearly barren of traffic on this late morning, and the men wear faces of boredom and dejection. To most people traffic is merely an annoyance, but to Raúl and his compadres it is hope.

Hope not just for them, but for families living in poverty many hundreds or even thousands of miles away, across one border or several. That blue sports utility vehicle heading up the street might be nothing at all. Then again, it could be a homeowner or contractor who needs someone to dig up stumps or strip paint for $10 an hour. Ten dollars an hour! These men come from countries where they are lucky to get that much in a day, in some cases a week. And, contrary to popular belief, food and essentials aren't much less expensive in Latin America. In a cruel twist of global economies of scale, life's necessities are in fact cheaper here, the men say. You pay as much for Colgate toothpaste in Bogotá as you do in Berkeley. Here in the United States, at least you can get free meals and a few groceries at the missions and pick up thrift-store ropas for next to nothing.

Every day from 6 a.m. onward, well over a hundred men -- plus the occasional woman -- turn out on both sides of this stretch of East 12th and its side streets from 29th Avenue to Fruitvale Avenue, all of them eager to trade a day of backbreaking demolition, ditch-digging, painting, landscaping, or whatever needs doing for a fistful of cash on the down-low. This underground economy requires no job applications or Social Security numbers. Work-seekers jump into a prospective employer's vehicle, leaving the passenger-side door open until terms are negotiated: a fair hourly wage with no taxes withheld and no questions asked, especially the dreaded one: Papeles? Si, tengo papeles, pero no aqui. My papers are at home.

Confidentiality is necessary because the majority, like Raúl, are in the United States illegally, and for that reason are loath to provide their last names for publication. Most are Latinos, twenty to fifty years old, who are doing their best to support a wife and children, or sometimes parents and siblings, back in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Colombia, or elsewhere. Besides their haunt on East 12th, the men can be seen waiting on the streets near various East Bay locales: the Walgreen's at Foothill and Fruitvale, El Cerrito's Home Depot, and Truitt & White Hardware in West Berkeley.

Few of the workers speak English, and most of the indigenos, men of diminutive stature from places like Chiapas and Guatemala City, don't even speak Spanish. The double language barrier makes it even harder for them to find work. As a result, the indigenous laborers are willing to work for less money, causing friction with their Spanish-speaking brethren who would prefer to keep wages up.

There is little work for anyone lately, and certainly not on this particular morning. Still, Raúl and his companions wait. It's nearing noon and most of the day's hopefuls already have given up and gone home, but Raúl has nowhere to go. One look at him says as much. His fingernails are chipped, his hands are stained with grime, and the skin on his mustached face has begun to assume the ruddy, leathery texture that's a hallmark of living on the street.

Indeed, though Raúl's home is the Mexican state of Michoacán, here he has none. When he arrived in the United States nine months ago he stayed with friends, but hospitality wears thin when you're not pulling your weight. Within this community of people who peddle their labor on East Bay streets -- and the hosts of undocumented workers who toil out of sight in restaurant kitchens, hotels, and nursing homes -- living space is extremely tight. "I've had families of nine living in a one-bedroom apartment, and at least a couple of others had sleeping space in the living room," says Leslie Brouillette, an Alameda County public health nurse who serves Oakland's Fruitvale, San Antonio, and Chinatown districts. "A lot of them don't have access to cooking facilities. I've been to homes without running water, all the things we take for granted." The upside of crowding is that the rent is cheap -- typically $150 to $200 a month. A man might even lease sleeping privileges on afternoons or odd days for less.

Yet Raúl apparently has better uses for his minuscule earnings. He has arrived too late, and not just to find work on this cold Saturday morning. Raúl and others who have come to this country recently are discovering they have missed the gravy train altogether.

Flush with work through the late '90s building boom, day laborers saw the jobs begin to taper off toward the end of summer as the recession's effects caught up with the Bay Area. Then came the terror attacks, and with the fall of the mighty towers, so it seemed, went the remainder of their fortunes. Since then, the local day-labor market has been downright stagnant.

While this situation may seem familiar to laid-off East Bay residents, there's a crucial distinction for immigrant laborers, the lowest tier of the employment hierarchy. Many of them are, for all practical purposes, trapped in the United States. Having risked their lives and left their loved ones in search of opportunity, they now find themselves unable to return home. A tightening border has made the crossing increasingly dangerous and less affordable, and if the men leave it could be years before they save up enough to come back.

Back home the men have families but no hope. Here they have hope, but no work. Few even have the cash to make it home, and if they did, to leave now would mean abandoning any chance for a better life. "I can't leave. I've got nothing there," says Andrés, a 21-year-old with two sons and a wife in Guatemala. "If I can't stay here, I won't be able to pay for anything, for food or the house. But if I don't get the work, what am I going to do?"

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